Fascinating jellyfish science told as a personal journey

  • Author: Nancy Lord
  • Updated: February 24
  • Published February 24

Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone

Juli Berwald; Riverhead Books; 2017; 336 pages; $27

In Alaska, most of us encounter jellyfish — more accurately known as "jellies" or "gelatinous zooplankton" since they are not fish — as we walk on beaches where they may have washed up or as we look down from boats or docks to watch their pulsing movements. Some cold-water swimmers may have joined them in the water, and fishermen know them from unintentionally catching them in nets. These beautiful marine creatures with umbrella-like bells and trailing tentacles live in all the world's oceans. If you've ever been intrigued by them, "Spineless" is the book for you.

Juli Berwald, the author of "Spineless," is an ocean scientist who left her job to be a science writer and to follow a private enthusiasm for all things jellyfish. For years, she traveled the world to observe jellyfish and meet with those who study them. Her big question was, "Are jellyfish increasing in the oceans and if so, what does that mean?" but she was also intensely interested in following the fascinating development of jellyfish science.

This book takes us on Berwald's journey, beginning with meeting a photographer whose jellyfish assignment dealt with ocean acidification and its effect on marine organisms. She visits aquaria, jellyfish conferences and researchers on boats and in the water as well as in their labs. She eats jellyfish and keeps some (not very successfully) in a tank at home.

There's a great deal of jellyfish science in this book — all of it fascinating and explained in terms ordinary readers will appreciate and all of it encompassed within the author's own experiences. It's an ideal science book in this way. Readers won't be buried in dry facts but will feel they're in the company of an interesting person following a passion and sharing her stories. It's jellyfish science wrapped in a memoir and travel adventure.

Berwald's own inquiry largely parallels that of the scientific world. At her start more than a decade ago, very little was known about jellyfish. By the time she finished the book, jellyfish research had exploded, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Jellyfish research is not just helping us understand what's happening in our oceans. Research into stinging cells, toxicology, bioluminescence, propulsion systems, and other aspects of jellyfish physiology and behavior has practical applications in medicine and technology.

Here are just a few awesome jellyfish facts: Jellyfish are the oldest multi-organ animals on Earth, going back at least 500 million years. Their stings, which come from microscopic spears, are produced by the fastest known motion in the animal world. They have a propulsion system that makes them the most efficient swimmers ever studied. Their life cycle has several stages and can sometimes go backwards — leading to the notion that some species are "immortal." The giant Nomura jellyfish found in waters off Japan can weigh more than 400 pounds. Jellyfishing (for Asian markets) is now the third largest fishery by weight in the state of Georgia.

Berwald's explanations of the science throughout her book are done with a light touch. She explains how a jellyfish's stinging cells work by taking us to the offices of Safe Sea, where scientists have developed a sunscreen that blocks the cells from deploying. She tells us, "… the stinging cell is an unimaginably complex weapon, what with its crazy barbed dagger, cache of toxins, superstretchy strong capsule, and high-pressure-based deployment scheme." She uses helpful analogies. "Jellyfish release particular sugars that act like a military uniform. They signal to other jellyfish that they are on the same side and to hold their fire."

What about the big question she started with? Are jellyfish increasing and, if so, what does that mean? Readers will not be surprised to learn that there's not a simple answer; as with everything in the ocean, relationships are complex. What scientists do know is that there are many different kinds of jellyfish and they'd don't all respond the same to conditions. Jellyfish blooms come and go without obvious patterns. (A bloom is a swarm, or a seasonal increase.) But Berwald also shows us that humans are degrading our oceans in various ways — through pollution, overfishing, the introduction of invasive species, climate change, and ocean acidification — and that these affect what can live well in their waters. Jellyfish, as ancient creatures that have survived previous extinction events, may be "winners" as our oceans warm and acidify.

Toward the end, the author paints us a terrifying picture of a Spanish coastline developed for tourism. There, development has badly degraded water quality and foreign jellyfish species have been introduced — such that enormous jellyfish blooms would prevent anyone from enjoying the water or beaches if not for a major infrastructure of netting that cordons off 27 miles of shoreline. Many people and euros are required to install, monitor, and repair the nets and to trawl the waters for jellyfish to destroy. The author laments, "Watching people swim behind nets was wrong. .. . I couldn't push away the feeling that if this was the future, we were creating our own prison."

The book's title, which may be a bit mysterious at the start, becomes clear by the end. Berwald finds herself "growing a backbone" in her own life as she embraces her passion and a commitment to educate others about the vulnerability of the oceans. She also makes a plea to the rest of us: "We can protect this stunning planet we all share if we grow a collective spine."